An opinion that surfaces over and over again on the Internet goes something like this:
"The drug companies are very close to a cure for diabetes, but they're hiding it because diabetes drugs and paraphernalia are so profitable for them."
Now admittedly, drug companies, like all companies, are in the business to make money. They're apt to spend more money on research into drugs for common diseases like cancer and diabetes than they are on research into drugs for rare diseases that affect only 100 or 200 new patients a year. This is the reason for the Orphan Drug Act, which rewards drug companies for working on drugs for the less common diseases.
Drug companies sometimes do bad things. But they also do good things. As one blogger (In the Pipeline) wrote when he was working for a drug company: "We're businesses, and we do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, which vary from the altruistic to the purely venal. You know, like they do in all other businesses."
Regardless of the motives of Big Pharma, what most people forget is that although the drug companies conduct or fund a lot of research into new drugs, they're not the only ones trying to solve medical puzzles. There's also academic research.
The main difference between drug company research and academic research is the source of funding and the tendency of academic researchers to focus on the root causes of diseases while the drug companies focus on developing new drugs to treat the symptoms. Quite often, the drug companies get ideas for new drugs from the academic research.
Also, scientists working for drug companies have more money to apply to the research, but they mostly have to focus on developing new drugs. Scientists in academia have more freedom to work on problems they find interesting, but they have more difficulty coming up with the funding.
In the long run, it's academic research that will result in curing diseases. Academic researchers will find out why people get diabetes, which will eventually lead to cures. In the long run, this is better than giving people pills to control their symptoms. In the short run, we need the pills, so we need the drug companies.
I used to do academic research myself, as a graduate student, and I even published one paper on my research (Becker GE, Pappenheimer AM Jr. Lyase activity of inducible S8-depolymerases from Bacillus palustris). Things could have changed in the many years since I left that world, but I suspect the basic motivations are still the same:
1. Doing research is fun. Doing scientific research is fun in the same way that doing crossword puzzles or working with Rubik's Cubes is fun. It's a challenge. I used to be amazed that people would actually pay me (a vast $2,400 a year, on which I could live for an entire year) to have so much fun.
Coming into the lab in the morning, or even in the middle of the night, to see how some experiment came out was exciting. Usually the results weren't spectacular, just small clues in a complex puzzle. Sometimes they led to dead ends. Sometimes things went wrong (like the time the cork came out of a huge glass column I was cleaning with concentrated sulfuric acid).
But occasionally, one discovered something new, and the effect was exhilarating.
2. Doing research can further one's career and even make one famous. Scientists, like nonscientists, want to be successful. One way to be successful is to discover a lot of new things and publish a lot of papers. When you're successful, it's easier to get grants to fund your research, so you can do even more of it, and you can hire assistants and supervise students and postdocs to do a lot of the actual lab work.
If you're really clever, or really lucky, you'll make a real breakthrough and get the Nobel Prize. Then you'll be famous as well as rich. Imagine how famous you'd be if you came up with a cure for diabetes! Most people don't mind being rich and famous. And if you're the competitive type, which many are, then it's also fun to try to discover something before the other guy does, especially if you don't like that person. All this inspires researchers to work nights and weekends.
I myself planned to get the Nobel Prize by the age of 35 or so by figuring out how the immune system worked. Unfortunately, I never got around to it.
3. Successful research can benefit others. I think most people have at least a little altruism; they truly enjoy helping other people. The idea that you can do research that is fun and helps further your career while at the same time possibly discovering a cure for some terrible disease can be very appealing.
I myself planned to cure cancer and then move on to muscular dystrophy. Unfortunately, I never got around to that either.
4. Academic research pays a living wage. Unless you come up with some idea you can patent or you win the Nobel Prize and can charge Big Bucks for every lecture you give, you'll never be rich working in academia. But you probably won't be poor either.
Drug company research pays more than academic research. In 2006, the median income of academic biochemists was about $63,000, and the median salary of biochemists in "industry" was $98,000.
But when I was in grad school, going into industry was sort of like going over to the Dark Side. (Actually, going to medical school was considered almost as bad for those idealistic students who had the goal of "pure research" and looked down on any jobs that had the potential to produce a good income. We didn't realize how important academic politics is and how much backbiting goes on in academia.) One guy who had a family to support did decide to take a job with a drug company, and people used to point him out to friends and say, in hushed tones, "He's going into industry."
I doubt that the motivations of scientists have changed that much in the years since I was in school, although it's even more difficult today to get grants to support the academic research. But I don't think we're going to run out of bright scientists who are eager to do the basic research that will eventually lead to cures. Even when the pay isn't so hot, the fun of doing the research makes it worthwhile.
I'm sure the motivations of scientists who work for the drug companies are similar to those of scientists who work in academia. They too would be famous if they came up with a cure for diabetes, and they too are undoubtedly not devoid of altruistic feelings. They're not going to hide a potentially Nobel Prize-winning cure for diabetes.
And even if "evil" drug companies were hiding some diabetes cure -- which they're not -- the academic researchers would find it.